February might be the shortest month on the calendar but for many people, it feels like the longest. The cold, brief days can foster a stay-at-home mentality causing some to forego the socializing and exercising associated with warmer months—two activities that play an important roll in feeling happy. It’s not unusual for February to trigger “the blues”—a temporary feeling of sadness and low energy that hangs around until spring.
For some, nighttime coming at 4:30 and bone-chilling temps are not truly the reasons for feeling down. Depression, and its slightly less serious sister, dysthymia, are common, especially among women, and can often be debilitating come winter. These feelings don’t start at this time of year, but they are exacerbated by it.
Depression can begin at any point in life, although it’s more common in people who have a family history of the illness, other mood disorders, or anxiety. In addition to being a primary diagnosis, depression can also be a symptom of the hormonal changes associated with perimenopause (which can start up to 10 years before menopause) or a symptom of hypothyroidism or anemia. Although society might not treat it as such, depression and dysthymia are medical diagnoses that require real treatment.
Sometimes, finding the root of the melancholy might be as easy as drawing blood. 54-year-old Lydia came to see me because she was feeling terribly sad and lethargic. It was puzzling because she never felt like that before and said, “My life is wonderful, I can’t think of why I am feeling this way.” Before jumping to the conclusion that Lydia was clinically depressed, I had her primary care physician run a few blood tests. Lydia had a significantly underactive thyroid, causing her gloomy feeling. Treatment for her hypothyroidism alleviated her symptoms within a couple of months.
Unlike the February blues, true depression doesn’t go away just because flowers start blooming—it requires a thorough diagnosis and the correct treatment. But how can someone tell if feelings of sadness are the kind that come and go or if it’s something more serious? I suggest taking the following four steps to get through the winter months more happily.
Start by bundling up for a brisk afternoon walk a few times a week. Exposure to sunlight and exercise help to improve mood. On days when it’s too cold or snowy out, walk on a treadmill or take a few laps around a shopping mall (many malls allow walkers in to exercise before the stores open). For a couple of months, limit alcohol intake to three or four drinks per week because it can cause or worsen depression. Eat more protein and healthy fats and consume fewer simple carbohydrates like pasta, white rice and sugary snacks. Although carbs may provide a temporary jolt of energy, when the drop in blood sugar arrives it can contribute to feelings of lethargy and sadness. Finally, make time to socialize, because spending time with friends is a mood lifter and reduces feelings of isolation.
If, after a month or two of these changes you still feel sad and hopeless or your sleep patterns have changed, consider seeking help. Even the summer months can feel cold and dark to someone who is depressed and the right diagnosis and treatment may not be a dramatic undertaking.
Dr. Susan Bartell is a nationally-recognized psychologist and author practicing in Port Washington. drsusanbartell.com